After weeks of dry weather it finally rained in late October and ... wow! Local wild food enthusiast and mushroom hunter, Adam Haritan, found a mother lode of giant puffball mushrooms in western Pennsylvania's woods.
How do you tell the sex of a spicebush? In autumn the females have bright red fruit.
Flowering plants (angiosperms) have different ways of reproducing:
90% of species have "perfect" flowers containing both male and female parts -- stamens and pistils. "Perfect" flowers are bisexual or hermaphrodites.
Monoecious species have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Did you know that corn (maize) is monoecious? The tassle on top is the male flower; the corncob grows from the female flower.
Dioecious species have male and female flowers on separate plants. Only 6% of flowering plants are dioecious, mostly woody species.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is dioecious but I didn't know that when I encountered this explosion of spicebush berries in the Laurel Highlands.
Right next to the fruit-laden bush was another one with no fruit at all -- just tiny green knobs, the buds for next spring. Why?
Aha! This plant is male.
If you know what to look for you can sex spicebush at any time of year but autumn is the easiest. In spring the spicebush flowers are so small that you'll want a magnifying glass to see their tiny structures.
October is cranberry harvest time in Massachusetts. Last week at Cape Cod my sister-in-law took us to see a flooded cranberry bog, red with floating cranberries.
Cranberries are native perennial vines that grow in sandy soil. Before mechanization people used to pick them by hand, crawling around on their hands and knees as shown in this painting of Nantucket in 1880.
Nowadays the harvest uses machines and this unique quality of the cranberry -- it floats.
In the photo at top, my sister-in-law describes how the bog is dry during the growing season. In the spring, honeybees are brought in to pollinate the cranberry flowers. Then in October when the berries are ripe, workers flood the bog and use a thresher machine to knock the berries off the underwater vines. The berries float, the workers corral the berries, and machines lift the cranberries out of the bog.
My husband went back a few days later to see the rest of the process. Here the cranberries are corralled and shuttled up out of the bog into the large black truck.
This 5 minute video shows the entire process.
The cranberry harvest is underway this month in these northern states and provinces: New Jersey, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Quebec.
(photos of a Cape Cod cranberry bog by Kate and Rick St. John. Painting of The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880 by Jonathan Eastman Johnson via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Video from True Food TV via YouTube)
Autumn is a good time to look for unusual leaves. They used to be boring until something happened to them. Like this.
There's an elaborate squiggle on this coltsfoot leaf (Tussilago farfara) made by a leaf miner, an insect larva that makes a path as it eats within the leaf tissue. Eventually the larva settles down to pupate and the path comes to an end. When the adult insect hatches it leaves a hole.
What makes these lines? I had no idea until I googled "leaf mine on coltsfoot"and found the answer. A blogger at Nature Post collected similar coltsfoot leaves, put them in jars, and waited for the adult insects to appear. It turns out his leaf mines were made by tiny moths called Phyllocnistis insignis.
Travel puts nutrition demands on birds in migration. What's on the menu for birds that eat fruit? Here's what they've been eating lately in Pittsburgh's Schenley and Frick Parks.
Number One on the menu is devil's walkingstick (Aralia spinosa). The picture above shows a beautiful full fruit cluster but you can't find these anymore. The tops of the plants are now empty pink stems with a few berries hanging on. Here's one in Schenley Park, looking up from below.
Another favorite are these tiny black cherries (Prunus serotina). Many black cherry trees have already been stripped of their fruit by large flocks of American robins and cedar waxwings.
In July and August I noticed something I'd never seen before along the trails of western Pennsylvania -- scattered instances of leaves turning white.
The leaves had been green but now their tips or even whole branches were white. The plant below had advanced to the stage where some of the stems were completely white.
The condition is called chlorosis and it means the plant is not producing enough chlorophyll to look green. Since chlorophyll uses sunlight to make food for the plant, it's a sign the plant is in distress. But why?
Any trip outdoors this month will find a lot of goldenrods in North America. Here are just a few of the species I've photographed over the years. All of them are different.
Can I tell you their names? No. Goldenrods are notoriously hard to identify.
Above, a beautiful bushy goldenrod at Acadia National Park in Maine.
Below, the classic goldenrod shape in Pittsburgh: a tall plant with narrow alternate leaves and a tassel of yellow flowers on top. To identify it I'd need more information than the photo provides. For instance: Do the leaves have two or three prominent veins? Are they toothed or entire? Is the main stem smooth or downy or both?
In the photo below: An unusual goldenrod shape photographed in Pittsburgh. The plant reaches out horizontally with flowers perched in clusters on top of the stem. The leaves are long and narrow. Perhaps it's blue-stemmed or wreath goldenrod.
This one is a stand-up spike of yellow flowers with egg-shaped alternate leaves, found in Pittsburgh.
Is this goldenrod the same species as the tall tassel above? I don't know.
I've never seen white goldenrods in Pittsburgh. This spike of white flowers was photographed at Acadia National Park in Maine.
And finally, a ball-shaped flower cluster with long leaves, growing in a granite crack at Acadia National Park.
So much variety. So many goldenrods. And often so hard to identify.
Early in June I noticed curled leaves on all the trees and bushes by a road in my neighborhood. Though I suspected it was caused by herbicide I was puzzled that other plants were not brown and dead. Why would someone use an herbicide that maimed but didn't kill? I forgot about it until I saw a photo of soybeans that looked the same way.
The problem is this: If your neighbor plants the new soybeans your fields could be affected. The new dicamba volatilizes (evaporates) from the soil and leaves where it's applied and drifts as much as half a mile causing crop loss and low yield in everything else including non-resistant soybeans, tomatoes, watermelons, grapes, pumpkins and other vegetables.